Major Donnie Dunagan, a retired marine, kept a secret from his fellow comrades for over 25 years. He also managed to keep the same secret from his wife for two years. It wasn’t until Dunagan’s wife discovered a box of movie memorabilia in their attic that she realized that her husband had kept a part of his past hidden from her.
Dunagan voiced the role of Bambi and served as a model for the young deer in the 1942 Disney film. He managed to keep his secret from those closest to him for a very long time.
As a young child, Dunagan got into acting almost by accident. Outside of his two-bedroom flat in Memphis, Tenn., a man would dance on the street corner as a means of making money during the Depression. Dunagan was mesmerized by the act and spent much of his time watching dance. His mother took him down one day to see the man, where Dunagan began to perfectly imitate his moves. The two became a duet and went on to win a talent competition. An audience member at the competition contacted his parents and asked for permission for Dunagan to audition in Hollywood. He played the role of the young son, Peter, in “Son of Frankenstein” before landing the part as Bambi.
Though he kept his past a secret, it was not because he was ashamed of his childhood acting job. Dunagan has good memories of Walt Disney and enjoyed working with him. Disney chose him because his face as a young boy was similar to the iconic deer.
Dunagan remembers filming the movie fondly. He voiced the role and then acted out the deer’s movements, turning left or right as needed. In the scene where Bambi is kissed by a young doe, Dunagan was asked to make a disgusted face. He was having so much fun playing the role, however, that he found it difficult to look unhappy. The director then told him to imagine drinking castor oil, which prompted him to make the unhappy face that is well-remembered by fans of the movie.
Dunagan fell out of childhood acting after “Bambi,” when he was removed from his home and placed in an orphanage. He joined the Marine Corps when he was older, where he served for over 25 years. He served in a variety of billets during his service and later became the youngest drill instructor in the history of the service. He deployed to Vietnam in 1967 as part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.
He received three Purple Hearts during his many years in the military and almost managed to never have his childhood secret discovered. In 1977, however, he learned that “Bambi” was being re-released in theaters, this time with credits. Dunagan imagined his gunnery sergeants and captains viewing the film and writing home to their families and letting them know that their commanding officer voiced Bambi.
It went into theaters unnoticed by most of his comrades until one day his commanding officer called him into his office. The officer asked him to audit some auditors on base, and when Dunagan explained that he was too busy, the officer repeated his request, adding in, “Major Bambi.”
Dunagan credits Walt Disney with influencing him to respect nature and to never hunt for fun. Though he only spent a brief period of time with Disney, he always remembered how adamant he was about respecting nature, preventing forest fires and only using animals when needed. The man, who kept so much a secret for so long, now proudly and fondly remembers his childhood memories that have stuck with him throughout his life.